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You may ask yourself, Well, how did I get here? ... You may ask yourself, Am I right, am I wrong? You may say to yourself, My God, what have I done? —Talking Heads, "Once in a Lifetime"
CRAWLING ALONG THE FLOOR on my hands and knees wearing a brown bedsheet, I was desperately trying to hide.
My God, how did I end up here?
Intensely embarrassed, I hid behind the fifty member choir, all of whom were wearing different colored bedsheets and blankets in their best attempts to imitate the style of New Testament times. They were standing onstage joyously singing music that was part opera, part Neil Diamond to a packed out room of around four hundred people in our church sanctuary.
It was our annual church Christmas musical, and I was supposed to be playing the role of a shepherd.
What made this such a bizarre moment for me was the fact that less than two years earlier, I was involved in a polar opposite type of musical experience playing drums in a punk and rockabilly band in London. How did I get here? What happened to me?
BEDSHEETS, BLANKETS, AND BAD MUSIC
If you've never been in a church musical before, let me give you a sense of what it's like. The shepherd costume I was wearing was sewn together from a chocolate-brown bedsheet, then secured around my waist with a belt of thick rope purchased at the hardware store. I also had a scarf to wear on my head and a thin, gold rope headband to tie it into place, but as soon as I saw myself with the gold headband, I felt so incredibly silly that I took it off. It looked like part of a children's pirate costume from Walmart, and I couldn't imagine that any respectable shepherd in Bethlehem would ever be caught wearing it.
I wasn't exactly a willing volunteer. I was in my midtwenties, and I was helping out in this church as a leader in the youth ministry. One of the pastors in the church had decided that it would be good for the teenagers to see me—their leader—participating in the musical, and he'd strongly encouraged me to help out. Because I had not been raised in a church, the concept of a Christmas musical was foreign to me, and the idea of being in one went against my better instincts, but I felt pressured to participate. Though I didn't understand how being in the Christmas musical would benefit the teenagers, I agreed to do whatever I could to help.
I didn't realize the extent of what I was getting myself into.
When rehearsals began, I started getting nervous. Listening to the music we were going to sing, I grew very uncomfortable. And the closer we got to the day of the performance, the more a feeling of dread settled in. Finally, I asked to be released from my commitment, but several people pressured me to stay, insisting yet again that it set a good example for the teenagers.
SINGING CELINE DION SONGS TO BABY JESUS
We sang the contemporary evangelical choir music that was quite popular at the time. To me, someone who was fairly new to the world of the church, it all sounded like a collection of Michael Bublé or Michael Bolton love ballads, only not as good. I think the organizers of the event hoped this musical would somehow replicate the experience of a Broadway musical like The Phantom of the Opera. But that wasn't quite how it looked or sounded, although they tried their best. To this day, I have a vivid memory of the woman who played Mary staring intently into the face of Baby Jesus and then breaking out into a pop song, Celine Dion style.
To be fair, the choir did a really good job performing the songs that had been selected for them. I'm sure my grandmother in New Jersey would have enjoyed the music, and it might have even brought her to tears (in a good way). But by my personal standards, it was light years away from what I knew good music to be. Being associated with it went against everything I loved about music. It was like musical kryptonite. Listening to the songs made me feel weak, dizzy, and lightheaded. I know that musical taste is subjective. But trust me, unless you were living in a retirement home, I am pretty sure you'd agree that the music wasn't something you'd listen to in your car stereo driving around town with your friends.
But it wasn't just the music or the costumes that caused me to hide behind the choir. It was also the presentation—the acting, the choreography. Everyone in the choir was encouraged to be overly expressive as we sang. We were told to extend our hands upward, all together, at the most dramatic moments in the songs. At other times, we were supposed to look frightened or happy or excited, and everyone did their best to perform in this melodramatic style, moving about the stage as they sang.
I know that the choir members, most of whom were quite a bit older than me, were sincere in their desire to do their best, but we just weren't actors. I felt like I was surrounded by middle-aged aunts and uncles (and even some grandmas and grandpas) breaking out into dramatized singing and waving their arms about. It was like they'd eaten too much Jell-O at the church picnic and were happily expressing the effects of the sugar rush.
WHITE PLASTIC GARBAGE-BAG ANGELS
As odd as all of this was, it got even stranger when I saw the angel costumes. The angels wore white plastic robes, and when the lights hit them at the right angle, they even shined a bit. I think that may have been intentional. To me, though, it really looked like they were wearing oversized white kitchen garbage bags with their arms and legs poking out.
Keep in mind that the people in the musical were kind and wonderful people. They had great motives. The musical was very meaningful to many of them. But it never would have crossed my mind to invite my non-Christian friends to something like this—unless we were grabbing a couple of drinks and heading to the musical for a fun night of odd and unusual entertainment.
THE CONFUSION OF A MISFIT SHEPHERD
What finally led me to crawl around frantically on my hands and knees behind the choir that night was seeing all the people in the audience. During rehearsals, though I was nervous, I could excuse some of the more embarrassing elements of the musical. But at the performance, it felt entirely different. There were several hundred people looking up at the stage, watching me. As the music started up and we began singing our opening number, something just snapped inside of me. In a moment of rising panic, I thought, What in the world am I doing up here? What would my friends think if they saw me right now? What if someone I work with sees me up here and thinks I like this music? Oh, my God (and I really meant it when I thought "Oh, my God"), Why am I dressed in this chocolate-brown bedsheet?
So I ducked to the floor and hid behind the choir.
PUNK-ROCKABILLY MEETS EVANGELICAL POP
What made this all the more of a bizarre, embarassing, frightening, and unreal experience was that music was everything to me. Just two years before, I was living in London, playing clubs and pubs as a drummer in a punk and rockabilly band. I loved music, especially the combination of punk and rockabilly we played. For years I was influenced by old-school big-band drummers like Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, as well as jazz-rock drummer Danny Seraphine. But punk and rockabilly connected with me in a way that I couldn't shake. It was raw, emotional music that I deeply identified with.
Rockabilly is a musical style that developed in the early 1950s, going against the grain of the safe popular music of the day. Rockabilly is an experimental fusing of rhythm and blues—the type of music you could hear on Beale Street in Memphis—with country and western. Sam Phillips, who ran Sun Studio in Memphis, was a pioneer of this genre, and he discovered and recorded classic rockabilly musicians like Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. Other musicians and bands like the Johnny Burnette Trio, Little Richard, Wanda Jackson, Gene Vincent, Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran, and Chuck Berry are also early examples of this style, and they were my musical heroes. They were innovators in both music and fashion, fusing different styles to create a style distinct from the popular culture of the time.
In a similar way, punk music rebelled against the mainstream, the popular music of the 1970s. Punk music stripped down the bloated beast of disco and arena rock to something raw, emphasizing the garage-band roots of many of its musicians. Bands like The Clash, The Ramones, the Sex Pistols, and the band X from Los Angeles broke new musical ground, shocking some people but resonating with others. Topper Headon from The Clash, D. J. Bone-brake from X, and Bill Bateman from The Blasters were drummers I carefully watched and tried to imitate musically.
Not only did I love the music, but I loved the fashion and the personal expression of the musicians who played these musical genres. Both rockabilly and punk musicians pioneered unique clothing and unusual hairstyles. I tried to imitate the pompadour hairstyle of the early rockabilly artists, as well as their clothing. Aesthetics and art were important to many of the punk bands and their music. Two members of The Clash attended art school in England before forming their band. The Ramones and the Sex Pistols had a thoughtful, deliberate approach to what they wore, crafting the image they presented to the public. This was the musical scene that I lived in.
Musically and culturally, the world of the evangelical church choir was the antithesis of everything I loved.
BACK TO THE MUSICAL
Crouched behind the choir, I felt trapped. Blood rushed to my head, and I began hyperventilating a little. When several choir members moved to the front of the stage, I crawled across the floor on my hands and knees like a frightened little monkey to avoid being seen.
Somehow I managed to stay hidden.
For the entire musical.
Although the program lasted only an hour, it felt like an eternity before the choir sang the final dramatic note, raising their arms high in the air in choreographed unity. The lights went out. The people applauded. It was finally over.
As the choir moved offstage, I stood up and walked out with them, acting as though I'd been there the entire time. I ducked out the side door of the church building and walked to my car, still wearing the brown sheet over my clothing. I skipped the reception and drove straight home.
And I never sang in a church musical again.
Why am I such a misfit? I am not just a nit wit! ... Why don't I fit in? —"We're a Couple of Misfits," from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
DO YOU REMEMBER that classic stop-motion animation Christmas movie Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer? The story begins with the preparations for Christmas at the North Pole. Everyone is anticipating the special day with excitement, everyone except a reindeer named Rudolph and his elf-friend, Hermey, who just don't feel like they fit in. They decide to run away from home and, in wonderful cartoon fashion, sing a song lamenting that they feel like nothing but a couple of misfits.
As someone entering the world of Churchland, I could very much relate to Rudolph and Hermey. I felt like a misfit, like someone who didn't fit the status quo of the church. My experience in the Christmas musical was just the beginning of an adventure, a process of learning to live in a culture that felt extremely foreign to me.
I now realize that not all church musicals are bad or embarrassing. Some are creatively written and professionally performed. And I recognize that even when the quality is bad by artistic standards, the people who put on these performances are doing it because they love God. They just want to tell the biblical story of the birth of Jesus or celebrate the story of the resurrection at Easter. Many churches use musicals or performances like this every year, and really there is nothing wrong with that.
My point is not to bash church musicals. It's to illustrate the fact that there are many things Christians do—with good intentions—that can be quite embarrassing or confusing to others. Sometimes even other Christians have trouble understanding why Churchland is the way it is. Many Christians today feel like an outcast or a misfit within their own churches and may be embarrassed to say that they are Christians, not because they are ashamed of Jesus but because they don't agree with many of the things that other Christians say or do that have nothing to do with Jesus.
My experience with the church musical is a metaphor I use to describe my entry into the organized church. At the time, I wanted to hide from people because I didn't want to be associated with the music and the style of the church musical. But since then, I have sometimes wanted to hide my identity as a Christian, not wanting to be associated with the cultural baggage of the church. I've found that my earliest encounters with the church contain some insights that can help us better understand the strange and unusual world of Churchland.
"WHY AM I SUCH A MISFIT?"
1. People may feel like misfits in the church not because they dislike Jesus but because they don't fit in with Churchland culture.
One of the most confusing things for me, being in the Christmas musical, was seeing how excited everyone else was about what we were doing. During the rehearsals, several people said to me, "Dan, isn't this going to be a great musical?" "This is such a wonderful song!" And I nodded and kept quiet. Maybe they're right, I thought. I was just trying to fit into this new church community and understand my new role serving in the youth ministry. Maybe, I thought, this is music that Jesus would like if he were walking around today. Perhaps the other choir members know better than I do.
At that time, I didn't realize that there are traditions, beliefs, and ways of doing things in the church that have nothing to do with the Bible or the teachings of Jesus. Now, as a leader in the church, I know firsthand that often what many churches do is a reflection of a specific church culture influenced by a denomination or the history of that church. But at first, I naively assumed that anything a church does is what the Bible teaches and is representative of Christianity. I felt there was something wrong with me if I didn't like a particular musical style or the way a worship gathering was designed.
2. The church sometimes presents a weird and confusing expression of the Christian faith, particularly to those outside Churchland.
Besides musical styles, other things can leave people who are new to the faith or investigating Jesus feeling disconnected, such as a church's approach to leadership or preaching, or its language or unwritten dress code or unspoken rules of conduct. These things may have nothing to do with the Bible, but they have become part of how things are done at the church. They may have been doing these things for years, no longer questioning why. They may not even realize they have cultural codes. But a church's unwritten rules and culture are the first things people outside the church notice, and they shape people's understanding of Christianity. In many cases, aspects of a church culture come across as weird, confusing, and strange.
In the Christian church, musicals like the one I was involved in happen each year. But as a relatively new Christian, this inner world of Churchland was not my land, and it wasn't a place any of my friends had ever visited either. Participating in this musical was like stepping into an entirely different culture. Though most of the people in the choir were people I would have totally loved to introduce to my friends, the cultural oddities of Churchland would have been the biggest stumbling blocks to introducing my friends to my new church community.
But what worried me about the musical wasn't just the costumes, the music, or the people in our church. I worried about the message we were communicating.
3. In Churchland, we sometimes skip the difficult questions and avoid digging into our faith, making those who ask questions feel uncomfortable.
Because I wasn't raised in the church, it wasn't until my college years that I started reading the Bible. When I did read the Bible, I had so many questions I was forced to get below the surface and dig as deeply into it as possible. Everything was different, and I was reading the Bible with fresh eyes. I had studied the account of Jesus' birth, so after seeing how the musical presented the Christmas story, I sensed that something was amiss. I knew that the musical wasn't entirely accurate.
Excerpted from Adventures in Churchland by Dan Kimball Copyright © 2012 by Dan Kimball. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
1. Welcome to Churchland
2. I probably wouldn't like Christians if I wasn't one
3. I See Mean People
4. Ovaltine, the Bible and Elderly Ladies Fighting in a Basement
5. Cannibals and Creepy Pastors
PART TWO: FROM CHURCHLAND TO GRACELAND
6. Escaping Churchland and Bad Music
7. Would Jesus attend a church today?
8. Why the church needs you and you need the church
** There may be another chapter or two we add to part two.
Posted September 5, 2012
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